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‘Justice not charity’ still needed 100 years on

25th April 2020

On the centenary of the ‘Blind March’ arriving in Trafalgar Square to call for legislation to improve blind people’s rights, Community’s former president, Robert Mooney, reflects on why its message is still important.

The National League of the Blind as it was known then was the only trade union to represent blind workers at that time. It was NLB up until 1968 when it opened up to members with other disabilities and at that point changed to NLBD. The NLB was formed in 1899 and had its centenary celebration in 1999 before joining with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation in 2002 and then becoming the NLBD section of Community on its formation in 2004.

What became known as the ‘Blind March’ in 1920 was the first protest of its kind and changed the way in which the TUC approached demonstrations. In fact, the famous Jarrow March in 1936 emulated the NLB march of 1920. I thought the theme of the NLB march was very powerful “We want Justice not Charity”, it’s interesting that many years later the theme of the STUC conference in 1997 was similar “Fairness not favours”. It’s a message that is still relevant today.

Image shows the blind marchers on their way to London in 1920, carrying a banner which reads Justice Not Charity.

The NLB march behind their Justice Not Charity banner

In 1920, Labour MP Ben Tillett took out a private member’s bill for blind people’s rights. The government put its own bill forward, albeit a watered down version on the original demands of the NLB. Blind people were asking for collective bargaining for blind workers in charity-run workshops for the blind and for the state to take over responsibilities for the running of these workshops. They also asked for a decent pension for those who could not work.

Blind people travelled from all corners to demonstrate – from Ireland, Scotland and Wales – joining different marches in England that all converged on London. On arriving in Trafalgar Square, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, made them wait for five days before meeting with them. Eventually the bill was passed and became the first piece of legislation for the blind, although the NLB wanted it to go further.

Things have moved on from then but there is still lots to do before blind people can have the same opportunities as their able-bodied peers. I attended a school for partly-sighted children. The year I left, 1971, was the first year kids from a special needs school were allowed to take exams. Once I left school very few employers would consider employing a blind person.

One hundred years on from the march and there is still much more to be done. Travelling and transport for blind people still throws up some real challenges, such as pavement parking and shared spaces. Some of our town centres are no go areas for blind people. There are still no audible announcements on lots of public transport, with timetables that are too high-up for people with sight loss to see. Blind people with guide dogs are constantly turned back from entering restaurants and taxis. The UK ballot papers for elections are still not completely accessible for blind people to fill out independently. I could go on.

But in my opinion, the worst inequality is still the lack of employment opportunities for people with sight loss. Forty years ago when I joined NLBD, 80% of blind people at working age were unemployed and now that figure is 75%. I feel this is in part due to the poor attainment rate for young people with sight loss and other disabilities when leaving school. If you’re a disabled child you are twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications compared to your able bodied piers.

This is why it’s important we remember the NLB march in 1920. We can celebrate their determination to self-organise and call for change but we can also resolve to continue the struggle for ‘justice not charity’.

Robert is former President of Community and President of the NLBD Section. He held the disabled workers’ seat on Community’s National Executive Council for over a decade.